plenty of passion, but lacking a Christ by lindayy


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									   burning issues                                                                            Gibson instead has stood firm, giving
                                                                                          countless interviews and defences of his
                                                                                          film, his reasons for making it, the ideas
                                                                                          behind it, and why he put in (and left out)
                                                                                          particular facets.
                                                                                             But before I make my own comments
                                                                                          on the film, there are a few foundations
                                          Katrina Bell gives an informal                  I would like to lay regarding the nature of
                                          discussion of Mel Gibson’s                      film and how we should think in particular
                                                                                          about films based on biblical material.
                                          The Passion of the Christ
                                                                                             All mediums of communication are of
                                             Mel Gibson’s new movie The Passion of        course limited in some way. A piece of
                                          the Christ is a brilliant film, but if you’re   writing will never be able to effectively
                                          looking for a Messiah figure, you should go     let a reader know what someone looks
                                          to see the latest instalment of The Lord of     like. A picture will never capture the
                                          the Rings instead.                              sound of a person’s voice. Film has two
plenty of passion, but lacking a Christ

                                                                                          main limitations –time, and its ability to
                                             The Return of the King shows you both
                                                                                          convey thoughts and motivations, having
                                          a servant suffering on behalf of the rest of
                                                                                          to rely on dialogue, actions and symbols.
                                          the world in order to destroy evil once and
                                                                                          This means that film, perhaps more than
                                          for all, and a king who returns to defeat
                                                                                          any other medium, is very much open to
                                          his enemies, restore a broken kingdom and
                                          inaugurate a new age where justice and
                                          peace reign. Neither Frodo nor Aragorn on          Films, in fact, are the result of many
                                          their own are Messiahs, but a combination       different interpretations before they
                                          of the two produces an image with striking      even make it to the cinema, particularly
                                          resemblances.                                   when they are adaptations of texts. A
                                                                                          text must be interpreted by a screen-
                                             Gibson’s Christ, on the other hand,
                                                                                          writer and turned into a film script. The
                                          is flat and two-dimensional, and comes
                                                                                          script is then interpreted by the actors
                                          across as merely a random person who
                                                                                          and the director, both of whom have
                                          happens, for no apparent reason, to suffer
                                                                                          some say in how each line is delivered
                                          the injustices of a biased jury, and to be
                                                                                          and each movement is portrayed. The
                                          executed unnecessarily. His death has
                                                                                          crew also make interpretative decisions
                                          no meaning, no consequences, and, if
                                                                                          regarding camera angles, lighting, musical
                                          one can discount the sickening feeling in
                                                                                          background, cutting and editing. A film is
                                          one’s stomach, no emotional component
                                                                                          always a collaborative effort.
                                                                                             Which is all by way of saying that when
                                             Or at least, such is my opinion.
                                                                                          we come to a film, we simply cannot
                                              I know, however, that my opinion is not     expect it to be, as some have hoped The
                                          shared by all. The Passion of the Christ        Passion in particular would be, a straight
                                          is, if nothing else, a film that has divided    portrayal of the original text. Film simply
                                          people and brought to the surface issues        does not function that way, and if we are
                                          and problems that have been simmering           going to judge a film by whether or not it
                                          away under the veneer of polite society         does we are totally disregarding what it is
                                          for many years. Charges of anti-Semitism,       able to do as a medium.
                                          pornography, intolerance and idolatry have
                                                                                             Once we understand that no film is going
                                          all been laid at Gibson’s door as a result
                                                                                          to be an exact representation of the original
                                          of his production. Others are hailing him
                                                                                          text, we can start to work at understanding
                                          as a brilliant evangelist making a bold and
                                                                                          what the filmmakers are trying to achieve,
                                          courageous movie in a world that hates
                                                                                          and judge it on its own merits. It is
                                          all things Christ-related. He also faces
                                                                                          not necessarily a bad thing that a film
                                          the issues of interpretation, and many
                                                                                          cannot be exactly the same as the text it
                                          criticisms have been sent in his direction
                                                                                          transforms. A film may bring out things in a
                                          regarding his use, misuse, or plain
                                                                                          text that we had not previously considered.
                                          disregard for both the gospel texts and the
                                                                                          It may enable us to see things in the text
                                          extra-Biblical historical material.
                                                                                          afresh. It may add helpfully to what the
                                             If I were him, I think I would run and       text says by including historical details or
                                          hide and hope it would all just go away.        emotional components that have been left
                                                                                                         page 1 :: burning issues :: march 2004
      out of the original source for one reason or        other.3 Similarly, some people who have
      another.                                            been particularly touched by the threat
                                                          of religious war see the film as a Christian
          Any film will also of necessity leave out
                                                          ‘calling to arms’ against the infidels, and
      aspects of the original, simply because it
                                                          fear that the current ideology of tolerance
      is ludicrous to attempt to transform a long
                                                          will be damaged by it. While it is possible
      book into a two hour movie and include
                                                          that the film may increase anti-Semitism
      every scene and snippet of dialogue. Many
                                                          and put religious war on the agenda,
      of the complaints levelled at The Passion
                                                          those who come out of the film with these
      have been centred around not what extra-
                                                          responses may be better put to examine
      Biblical material Gibson included in the
                                                          their own minds and lives to investigate
      film, but what he left out. Clearly, however,
                                                          whether or not they have themselves
      the makers of the film could not include all
                                                          projected these issues onto the film.
      the possible information or events and still
      have a film of reasonable length. Perhaps              So what was my own mindset as I
      we should be asking ourselves why these             prepared to see the film? I was ready for

                                                                                                             the passion
      things were not included, and try to                violence, and prepared to feel physically
      deduce from them what the film is saying            sick and perhaps be unable to watch
      about Jesus’ sacrifice.                             parts of the film. I was expecting to be
                                                          emotionally stirred up, or at least strongly
         Gibson himself never assumes that his
                                                          emotionally involved with the film, to
      film is the only possible version of the
                                                          potentially bawl my eyes out, and to come
      passion narrative, nor does he claim that
                                                          out of the film feeling awe and love for my
      it is all-inclusive or non-biased. In one
                                                          Saviour whose story I had seen portrayed.
      interview he states, ‘This is my version of
                                                          I was hoping to see a realistic portrayal of
      what happened, according to the gospels
                                                          actual events that I believe happened but
      and what I wanted to show – the aspects
                                                          had little idea of what they actually looked
      of it I wanted to show.’1 And for those
                                                          like. And I went in knowing that I had
      who claim that he should have stuck more
                                                          this article to write, and so ready, English
      closely to the original text, he has this
                                                          student that I am, to critique what I saw,
      to say: ‘My first duty is to be as faithful
                                                          heard and felt, not only for my own benefit
      as possible in telling the story so that it
                                                          but in a way that others would be able to
      doesn’t contradict the Scriptures. Now,
      so long as it didn’t do that, I felt that
      I had a pretty wide berth for artistic                  In some ways it lived up to my
      interpretation, and to fill in some of the          expectations. The violence was terrible at
      spaces with logic, with imagination, with           times, although not as bad as I had expected
      various other readings.’2 He is unashamed           it might be. Perhaps this is because I
      to say that this is his own work, and has           have become desensitised to violence,
      no desire to claim it as the ultimate Jesus         particularly through our recent fetish for
      movie of all time or the only possible filmic       ‘reality’ viewing, a trend that has certainly
      interpretation of the gospels.                      influenced this film. At times the violence
                                                          was very powerful. At other times it was
         People will, of course come out of
                                                          simply boring. There are only so many
      the film with many different responses,
                                                          times you can flinch at seeing a man being
      no matter what the director’s intention.
                                                          brutally flogged; after a while it becomes
      Partly this is because it is the nature of
                                                          monotonous and you simply become numb.
      film, as it is of all art, to evoke varying
                                                          Similarly, there are only so many times you
      feelings, emotions and thoughts. People
                                                          can see a man falling under the weight
      leave with different responses because
                                                          of his cross and feel anger towards those
      they come to it with different mindsets.
                                                          who have no compassion on him. I am
      The charges of anti-Semitism are
                                                          still in two minds about the necessity of
      particularly telling here – while some have
                                                          the violence. What is certain, however,
      seen the movie as grossly attacking Jewish
                                                          is that the images, perhaps because they
      people, others have come out confused
                                                          were so often repeated and so strongly
      over why anyone could possibly think it is
                                                          delivered, have lived in my memory. Now,
      in any way anti-anyone, except perhaps the
      Romans who, being no longer in existence,       1
                                                        Interview with Diane Sawyer, ‘Pain and Passion’,
      no one cares about one way or the               2
                                                         Interview with Jane Johnson Struck and David Neff, ‘Dude, That Was Graphic’,
                                                        On the charges of anti-Semitism, Barbara Amiel makes the sensible but pointed remark, ‘A
                                                      committed Christian like Mel Gibson does not make films about the central core of his belief
                                                      to engender hatred against the Jews any more than Jews create memorials to the Holocaust
                                                      – a central fact of Jewish existence – to create hatred of Gentiles or even Germans.’
page 2 :: burning issues :: march 2004                4
                                                        John Hartl, ‘Gibson’s Passion is bloody empty’,
           when I read in my Bible of how Jesus               prophecy of Genesis 3, and a reminder that
           suffered, I have more of an idea of what           Jesus is the second Adam (Romans 5) who,
           that might have looked like. It has given my       in a garden and tempted by a snake yet
           understanding of such verses a power they          remains faithful to the will and purposes of
           previously lacked. Perhaps that could have         God. Similarly, in one of the closing scenes,
           been done with half as much violence. But          Satan is shown screaming at his (or is it her?)
           I certainly wouldn’t agree with John Hartl’s       defeat, a perspective the gospel writers
           evaluation that ‘if you flogged yourself for       never give us but which is a fantastic moment
           two hours and six minutes you might come           of showing the large-scale significance of
of the Christ
           out of the experience just as enlightened
           as if you had watched this movie.’4
                                                              Jesus’ death.
                                                                  Even in my dislikes about this film – its lack
              In my role as a movie critic, there was         of gospel context (there is very little shown
           plenty in this movie to praise. While              of Jesus’ life) and what I suspect would be
           many film adaptations of the Bible that            its utter incomprehensibility to the Biblically
           remain true to the text are low-budget,            illiterate (there is no attempt to explain what
           poor quality productions, this movie oozes         is happening or why) – I must admit that it is
           professionalism, class and high cost. The          extraordinarily true to the text – the gospels
           use of light and darkness is wonderful.            themselves are taken up much more by the
           The costumes and sets are realistic and            account of Jesus’ last eighteen hours than by
           add to the sense of historical accuracy.           the rest of his life, crucial though it is, and
           The soundtrack is powerful but not                 offer little explanation of the significance
           overwhelmingly so, adding to what we see           of the cross, leaving that to the writers of
           on the screen rather than distracting the          the New Testament letters. This movie is
           viewer. The acting is brilliant, especially        Biblically accurate not only in what it does
           when you consider that the actors are              portray, but also to a great extent in what it
           speaking in foreign languages the whole            chooses to leave out.
           time. I found the representation of the
                                                                 Other points of imagery (and the film is full
           minor characters particularly powerful.
                                                              of them) also reinforce the biblical message,
           The Roman soldier whose ear is chopped
                                                              even if they are not as explicitly Biblical in
           off and then miraculously restored – I had
                                                              and of themselves. The thief on the cross
           never before considered what he must have
                                                              who fails to recognise Jesus’ Lordship has
           felt after his encounter with Jesus. Film is
                                                              his eyes pecked out by a raven immediately
           able to portray the expression on his face,
                                                              after rejecting Jesus, reinforcing his spiritual
           and it was truly priceless. And how would
                                                              blindness with physical blindness. And when
           Simon of Cyrene have felt about being
                                                              Judas goes to hang himself, he acquires his
           forced to carry the cross? His changing
                                                              rope from a dead, maggot-infested donkey;
           attitude towards Jesus throughout the
                                                              the only other donkeys we see in the film
           ordeal was brilliantly imagined and
                                                              are ridden by the religious leaders who are
           compellingly portrayed, right down to the
                                                              opposing Jesus, the implication being that
           final wordless parting of the two. This film
                                                              they too are dead and rotten on the inside.
           opened my eyes to the effect Jesus’ death
           and its circumstances may have had on the             So, as a film critic, I was impressed. A
           ordinary people around him.                        brilliant movie, I would call it. Spectacular
                                                              in its film techniques, in its writing, in
              As a Christian, one of the things I want to
                                                              its acting. It thoroughly lived up to my
           praise about this film is its Biblical accuracy,
                                                              expectations in that regard.
           not only to the gospel narratives but also
           to the broader theological context. In the                 However, I also expected to be
           initial scene in the garden of Gethsemane,         emotionally stirred up by the movie, and,
           Jesus does emotional battle with Satan.            much as I feel almost sacrilegious saying
           This scene, of course, does not occur in           so, I was not. There were some moments
           the gospels, and because of that has been          which were very moving, but for the most
           criticised. But to propose that Jesus was          part I found the movie emotionally tedious
           tempted by Satan at that point to abandon          and unengaging. What did strike me was the
           his mission is surely not outrageous, and          portrayal of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Just
           the film simply visualises what we suspect         as I had never considered the impact Jesus
           happened internally for him. In the closing        would have had on the soldier whose ear was
           moments of that scene, a snake slithers            restored, so too I had never put myself in
           out from Satan’s robes and Jesus crushes           Mary’s place and felt her pain as she watched
           his head, a direct enactment of the                her son die. Gibson’s focus on Mary is a

                                                                                 page 3 :: burning issues :: march 2004
       result of his Catholicism, and many people      be able to respond in any appropriate

                                                                                                                burning issue
       have criticised the film for that, but I did    way? I am unconvinced. As a wake-up
       not find it intrusive or problematic. It        call for spiritually napping Christians
       heightened my sense of the tragedy of           or for lapsed Catholics, I suspect it
       what was occurring on a personal level,         will be highly effective. But its lack of
       and particularly when coupled with the          any context or explanation whatsoever
       flashbacks of Jesus at home with his family     makes it a bad gospel message.5 That said,
       it had a very strong impact on me. As           the gospel narratives themselves are only
       Protestants I think we often flee away          very slightly more comprehensible, taken
       from thinking about Mary, so scared are         on their own, and God in his mercy has
       we of falling into the trap of Catholicism’s    been speaking to people through them for
       insistence on her importance. But she           millennia. My hope is that he will similarly
       is part of the story in the gospels, and        use this movie, despite its ambiguities and
       warrants a role in a film of Jesus’ last        its inevitable human flaws, to further his
       hours.                                          kingdom in this world. Certainly he would
                                                       appear to be doing so – the Bible Society
           But aside from a few Mary moments, I
                                                       in Australia has had hundreds of requests
       found I was unmoved by this film. As I say
                                                       for its publication that accompanies the
       so I understand that, of all the people I
                                                       film, and churches in America at least are
       know who have seen the movie, only three
                                                       reporting huge numbers of visitors as a
       others have felt the same way I do – I am
       seriously in the minority! But I found it
       impossible to emotionally connect with             Should we encourage our non-Christian
       this Jesus. Who is he? There was too little     friends to see this movie? Absolutely, if
       of his life for me to know who he was, or be    they can stomach the gore and if you are
       convinced that he was my Jesus, the Jesus I     willing to watch it with them and spend
       know and love from the accounts of his life     some serious time talking to them about
       I find in the New Testament. He was a two-      it afterwards. But it is a movie that will
       dimensional character on the screen, not        require real explanation if those who are
       the fully realised and fully detailed man we    not familiar with the Bible are going to
       see in the gospel accounts. Rather than         understand the significance of what they
       being my Lord and Saviour, this man was         have seen represented on the screen.
       simply some person who spoke a strange              So on the whole, my discussion brings
       language, suffered an unfair trial and was      me back to where I began. What do I think
       horribly executed. I felt pity for him, but     of The Passion? It is certainly a great film
       no love, no real sorrow. I never felt that      – not a perfect film, but a great one, and I
       what he was going through was for me, for       suspect it will remain the great Passion film
       my sake, for love of me – that theme was        for decades to come in terms of its quality,
       not made explicit enough at any point in        its potential impact and its accuracy. But
       the movie. Honestly, I am not sure why this     it is a bad gospel – it is a film almost totally
       Jesus died.                                     devoid of good news and lacking somewhat
          That did not, though, dumb down              in its ability to announce anything. Gibson’s
       the sense of joy and victory of the final       Jesus cannot come close to the real one
       scene, where the clearly resurrected            who we can know through his actual death
       Jesus prepares to walk out of the tomb.         on the cross. Fortunately, we do not have
       Reverting back to my critic hat, I found        to settle for the Saviour this film provides,
       the final scene utterly perfect – brief,        but we can return, having seen the film, to
       certainly, but no more so than Mark is in       the original book, and to the Jesus who we
       his gospel, and powerful in its brevity. This   know loves us to death.           □
       Jesus, regardless of why he died, walks
       out into the world victorious. There is a
       sense of grim determination in his face,
       and an insistence that the viewer think
                                                        See for example the responses of non-Christian film critics:
       about this man who, having been treated         Ray Richmond states, ‘The significance and import utterly
       so horrendously, chose to return.               elude me. And that must be at the core of any argument,
                                                       because otherwise all you have is crimson, super slo-mo
          The Passion ends on this note. But is        torture in search of any understanding or perspective’;
       it comprehensible enough to a general,          Philippe Antonello complains that this film is ‘so narrowly
                                                       focused as to be inaccessible for all but the devout.’ (both
       Biblically-illiterate audience for them to      on

page 4 :: burning issues :: march 2004

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